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No place like home

It helps to get out. Most of the times I was let out when I was a teacher, I came back with a greater appreciation of at least one aspect of my own school. This time last year, when I was Boeinged several thousand miles to China, I had the chance to do the same with our country's entire education system.

Mr Yan - a pseudonym - was a Shanghai businessman who owned a Porsche Cayenne. My boss and I had gone to lunch with him. As I operated my chopsticks with the manual dexterity that consistently earned me a place on the substitute's bench in S2 PE, Mr Yan questioned us through his interpreter. What would we do if we had a son who wanted to go out and play when he should be studying? What would we do if we had a son who was falling behind the others in his class?

Our answers were hardly startling, although they might have seemed so to our host. My children had different strengths. I didn't compare them to others in their class, and I only wanted them to be the best they could be. I wanted my children to play as well as study, to be involved in bands and school committees.

Back home, and brimming with enthusiasm for learning the language of the lovely, hospitable people I'd met, I signed up to a YouTube channel called 5 Minute Chinese. Each morning, as I ate my cereal, I tuned in to another episode. If you ever need someone to say "My mum is not American" in Chinese, I'm your man.

One day, the lively presenter Ping took time out from teaching us vocabulary. She wanted to talk about cultural differences. Her topic was the Chinese education system and in particular the gaokao, or higher education entrance exam. I was genuinely moved as Ping abandoned her trademark cheerful demeanour to speak with passion about the immense pressure this test can place on children and their families.

Touched, I fretted about the young people of China. I worried that the children of the people who had made such an impression on me were being denied big chunks of their childhood. (Although, apparently, if you do get to university, it's a bit of a skoosh.) Whatever grumbles I had about Scottish education seemed small in comparison; although our assessment procedures are sometimes frustrating, they are relatively benign.

So let's not go down that silk road. But let's also not pretend that we can't learn anything from Shanghai. I began this column by saying that when I was allowed out of school, I came back appreciating at least one aspect of it. Sometimes I came back envying at least one aspect of someone else's.

Maintaining the anti-cramming message of this piece, I invite readers to find out for themselves what there is to envy in Shanghai - google "Dylan Wiliam".

Gregor Steele is head of physics and technology at the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre

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